Habits of Grace, Sources of Strength

For a short video reflection on this topic, click here.

As we all enter the second week of life in physical isolation, I have been thinking a lot about HOW we remain connected to God’s goodness and love, which is so often mediated through one another, and which we need in large doses as we all cope with dramatic changes, losses, and anxieties. We all want to know “the peace that passes understanding,” but how? 

Of course there is no pat answer, but thankfully, the church does have a long history of teaching us precisely on this complicated question. We need God’s grace -- which is, simply put, strength, love, and life given to us. It is not something we can make or manufacture. But what is our role in receiving it? We cannot simply grit our teeth and make our COVID-19 anxiety disappear, or grit our teeth and find the strength we need to love the people in our household (or outside our household) that we want to love fully and deeply and well during this time. So what’s our role?

In To Love as God Loves, Roberta Bondi offers a wonderful and thought-provoking summary on the dance between grace and human effort. She offers up the teaching of Origen of Alexandria, a third-century writer who says the relationship between our effort and God’s grace is like traveling in a sailing ship on the ocean. 

“Our life is like the ship, and we are the captain. All our skill, energy, and attention are necessary to avoid shipwreck and arrive in port, for the ocean is dangerous and inattention is disastrous upon it. Our ship, however, also needs the wind … [and] the skill of the captain seems very small compared with the contribution of the wind. … the wind represents God’s help and grace. Great as that grace is, the human being must work, with all the skill and energy he or she can muster, in order to love.” 

She goes on to note that “the wind will not take matters into its own hands (so to speak!) to sail the ship without the attention and work of the human sailor.  … Praying to God to make us love without any other effort on our part will not make us love.”

I know that this COULD be a very discouraging metaphor in the time of so many changes that are out of our hands. What kind of crazy person wants to bring up the old “you are the captain of your life!” metaphor at a moment like THIS?! Who feels in charge of their lives these days?! And yet. 

It is the monastics who teach us -- Christians everywhere, in all circumstances -- that some of our greatest battles are not on the outside, but on the inside. That we always have some crucial choices, however limited. And that knowing WHERE we want to go (i.e., to truly grow in love for God and others) is necessary -- again, no matter what our external circumstances. 

So, if you are like me, and feeling very muddled and fuzzy and confused about what you are doing these days, anyway, I hope you will join me in taking time to sit quietly and recall what your ultimate goal is, even in these days. For me, it comes down to love: I want to know in particular right now how I can love others in my house and out of my house, while not leaving my house. How I can stay connected to -- and maybe even grow in -- my love for God, as daunting as that seems today. One of the best pieces of prayer advice is to be able to name your true, deepest desire to God, whatever it is this day.  I want to be more patient with my kids. I want to be saved from this suffocating fear around money as the economy grinds to halt. I want to know what I can do to love and serve from this place.

And, as Bondi writes, “sometimes we are so mired in the world we live in, with its temptations, habits, and ways of seeing and feeling, that we do not even know what is wrong with us, we only know that something is wrong, and we feel helpless.” I think this is many of us in these past weeks. The good news is that in this case, the human effort may be “tiny” but it is still “of crucial importance: it consists in calling out to God for help, simply saying ‘God help me.’ This much we can always do.”

Finally, we humans need -- crave, create, and feel crumpled by the destruction of -- structure. This up-ending of carefully (or haphazardly) built life structures is something each American is living, albeit in different ways. Funny enough, monastics also have a lot of experience with finding patterns of life that are meaningful, joyful, loving, and are compatible with relative isolation. So while my structures have been turned upside down, this week I’m looking at each day and trying to name each of the Benedictine elements of life:




And then, maybe because I am an American millennial with young children, I’m adding Joy.  These days are strange, but I deeply trust that I will be stronger -- I will be connected more fully with God’s grace -- if I make sure I have time devoted to each of these habits. Prayer. Work. Service. Joy. What is one way I turn the wheel to each of these habits of grace each day? Because these are the backbones of a gritty but grace-filled life. One where we find strength apart from ourselves, again and again. Strength we cannot manufacture but can turn to receive, with intentionality and hope.